Former Vatican treasurer George Pell’s conviction on child sex offences should stand because a victim’s account was truthful, a prosecutor told an Australian court on Thursday, the final day of the cardinal’s appeal hearing.
Pell was sentenced in March to six years in jail after a jury found him guilty of five sexual offences against two 13-year-old choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990s when he was archbishop of Melbourne.
The 77-year-old, the highest-ranking Catholic cleric worldwide to be convicted of child sex offences, is mainly appealing on the grounds that the verdicts were unreasonable based on the evidence, including the account of one of the victims.
His lawyers also argue that the trial judge erred in blocking the defence from showing a video animation depicting where people were in the cathedral after mass. The claimant said the first assault took place in the priests’ sacristy after mass in late 1996.
Pell’s lawyers say he could not have been in the priests’ sacristy at the time of the events as he would have been on the front steps of the cathedral after mass, a point that went unchallenged at the trial.
They also said there was a “fundamental irregularity” as Pell did not make his plea physically in the presence of the jury panel, but rather by a video-link. If the court overturns the verdict, Pell will be released. If the court finds the judge should have allowed the video animation or the arraignment was improper, Pell could face a retrial.
Responding to the appeal, prosecutors said the jury believed the complainant’s account of what happened in two separate incidents in late 1996 and early 1997, and rejected the evidence of other key witnesses, including the priest who assisted Pell most closely at the cathedral where the incidents took place.
“The complainant was a very compelling witness. He was clearly not a liar. He was not a fantasist. He was a witness of truth,” said Christopher Boyce, a lawyer for the Crown, told the court on Thursday in his opening remarks.
The three judges focused their questions on why they should believe the complainant and disregard a range of evidence around church practices which suggested it would be implausible for Pell to have sexually assaulted two boys shortly after Sunday mass in places where there might have been witnesses.
The judges also said there could be uncertainties in the witnesses’ evidence, given that 22 years had passed since the events occurred. “The question of uncertainty seems to me to be a feature inevitably about events decades earlier,” Victorian Court of Appeal President Chris Maxwell said.
The appeal hearing is due to end later on Thursday. A decision could take several weeks to hand down. Pell was hand-picked by the Pope in 2014 to oversee the Vatican’s vast finances, but no longer has any position in the Vatican. He remains a cardinal and can only be dismissed from the priesthood if the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found him guilty following a separate canonical trial or a shortened procedure called an administrative process.